Elections 2018: Mapping the trends

Beyond glib claims of ‘Naya’ and ‘Purana’ Pakistan, the minutiae of election results throw up some interesting insights.
Published September 2, 2018

The basis of any electoral process is an authentic census — the more accurately people can be counted, the more precise is the representation of their aspirations and rights. And while political parties in the wake of the 2018 electoral results have raised a hue and cry about their lost mandate, few realise how little inaccuracies in the census process can have larger, more ground-shaking and shaping outcomes when it comes to the elections.

The sixth population and housing census of 2017 was ultimately carried out in a hurry. Its results were not issued by the last government, because as well-placed sources put it, nobody in the outgoing government wanted to deal with the new social dichotomies that have been thrown up by the census results.

One such phenomenon, for example, is in language data compiled by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) and submitted before the Council of Common Interests (CCI). Census 2017 results reveal a five percent drop in Punjabi speakers in Punjab while also showing the lowest population growth rates. What makes this more interesting is the fact that there is a rise in speakers of other languages — Urdu, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Kashmiri, Seraiki, Hindko and Brahvi.

Then there is the reconfiguration of the urban-rural divide. Rural population in Punjab as a percentage has decreased from 68.7 percent (1998) to 63.14 percent. Simultaneously, urban population in Punjab has increased from 31.3 percent to 36.86 percent. Together, these factors signify how Punjab is slowly but surely turning towards its cities as the engine of growth.

Beyond the glib claims of ‘Naya’ and ‘Purana’ Pakistan, the minutiae of election results throw up some interesting insights into how Pakistan polled.

How does this connect with the elections?

New delimitations or the carving of new constituencies were to ultimately rely on this data to make final electoral maps. Rural areas that now resembled towns, for example, needed to be recognised and rationalised in official documents. That much did not happen in the run-up to the elections as allegations of foul play in the delimitation process continued to be made and, in fact, even taken to the Supreme Court for adjudication.

But perhaps, this is the heart of the matter: electoral numbers issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) cannot be completely relied on for an accurate picture since there remain large doubts about the transparency of the electoral process itself. And since the electoral process is premised on the delimitation process, the doubts carry much weight.

The analysis below, however, has been made by setting aside the legitimate question marks over the electoral process. Instead of focusing on who won where and by how much, we have attempted to understand where the close contests eventually came to be and how this compared to the elections of 2013. Similarly the provincial results also offer some intriguing insights. Despite the shadow hanging over a large number of electoral battles there is something to be gleaned from the data, if one looks at some of the trends.

If viewed on a map, the number of close contests — where the margin of victory was less than 10 percent — increased as compared to 2013. Many of these close contests in the last elections were played out in Balochistan, with a few in southern Sindh, eastern Punjab and parts of northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This time, the site of close contests was mainly Punjab.

In total, the number of close contests in the National Assembly this year is 64. This can be further divided by provinces: eight contests in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (NA-10, NA-11, NA-13, NA-21, NA-22, NA-33, NA-35 and NA-36); two in the tribal areas (NA-42 and NA-49); 39 contests in Punjab (NA-57, NA-67, NA-71, NA-73, NA-74, NA-87, NA-88, NA-89, NA-90, NA-91, NA-94, NA-98, NA-100, NA-105, NA-106, NA-108, NA-110, NA-112, NA-114, NA-117, NA-118, NA-126, NA-129, NA-131, NA-139, NA-140, NA-151, NA-152, NA-157, NA-159, NA-160, NA-161, NA-166, NA-172, NA-174, NA-175, NA-182, NA-187 and NA-188); 12 in Sindh (NA-196, NA-204, NA-212, NA-215, NA-220, NA-221, NA-230, NA-237, NA-239, NA-241, NA-248 and NA-249); and three in Balochistan (NA-259, NA-267 and NA-272).

But what do these close contests indicate?

Contests where the margin of victory was less than 10 percent in 2013 (L) vs 2018 (R)  | Dawn GIS
Contests where the margin of victory was less than 10 percent in 2013 (L) vs 2018 (R) | Dawn GIS

Obviously one thing that they indicate is that large parts of the country are politically polarised. But if the data is at least somewhat accurate, it also indicates a rising trend in the popularity of one party or another. Those who weren’t major players the last time round became so this time, either because their personal standing improved or their party’s did.

The lowest margin of winning was in NA-21 (Mardan) with 35 votes; the Awami National Party’s (ANP) Ameer Haider Khan Hoti emerged victorious from this constituency. Another double-digit difference was reported from NA-91 (Sargodha) with Zulfiquar Ali Bhatti of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) winning by a mere 99 votes.

Western Punjab saw a pitched battle between the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the PML-N. The constituencies of NA-94, NA-98, NA-114, NA-182, and NA-188 all went to the PTI in this clash. The PTI winning (or taking in independents) from western Punjab is also reflected in provincial results from the same region.

Meanwhile, after a very long time, Karachi also saw its share of close contests. Five constituencies are officially earmarked as those where the margin of victory was less than 10 percent — although, arguably, the number of close contests was even higher. While by-elections have already been announced, the true test of these electoral results will be in local government polls. Whether the PTI can replicate its popularity at the local level will ultimately define whether its vote bank in Karachi is genuine or manufactured.


Perhaps it is poetic for rivers to divide the land of five rivers into electoral patterns.

The independents and the ‘electables’ — those supposed to swing the elections — tend to hail from regions west of the River Ravi and River Chenab. This is among the most fascinating instances of repetition of history — despite the domination of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in the Punjab Assembly, the same happened in 2013. And in 2008. And even before that.

There is a reason and it is bedded in history.

The highway connecting Lahore with Multan is known as Multan Road. Along both sides of the highway lie lands that have not only undergone land reform but also reaped the benefits of the Green Revolution. Landholdings have gotten even smaller over the years while population pressures have increased. The ultimate guarantor of prosperity, however, is proximity to the river — Ravi in certain areas and the Chenab in others.

In both 2013 and 2018, the PML-N captured this segment of constituents. And similarly, in both elections, ‘electables’ held sway in regions where land reform has had lesser of an effect and the size of landholdings is large. That said, unlike western Punjab where the winning candidates over successive years have been independents, areas along the two rivers have historically been contested and won by those associated with a political party. In other words, the trend of democratic engagement being higher wherever land reforms have taken place has continued.

The lead up to this year’s elections saw renewed talk of a South Punjab province. The last time round, in 2011, this cause had been taken up by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government led by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who hailed from South Punjab himself. This move was given backing by PPP supremo and then president, Asif Ali Zardari, in a party meeting held in Multan. President Zardari had claimed back then that the province will be carved out before the next elections in 2013.

But over time, the argument that the PPP was trying to protect its influence in South Punjab while its presence had withered away in the rest of the province gained currency. This time — even though the PPP has upheld its line — the chief flag-bearer of the South Punjab province has been the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

And as the electoral maps show, southern Punjab has responded to the rhetoric.

To put things into perspective, the 11 districts of southern Punjab — Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Rajanpur, Layyah, Muzaffargarh, Multan, Khanewal, Lodhran and Vehari — have a combined population of 34,743,590, according to the 2017 census. As a percentage of Punjab’s total population of 110,012,442, southern Punjab districts boast 31.58 percent.

Census 2017 results handed three more seats to south Punjab in both the National and Punjab assemblies. This translates into 45 National Assembly seats (13 percent) and 94 Punjab Assembly seats (25 percent). In terms of making or breaking a government, southern Punjab has the numbers needed to do either.

That the PTI and its ally, Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), have swept southern Punjab should, in theory, provide the numerical strength to make great strides towards a South Punjab province. Such were the stakes involved that the PTI absorbed groups such as the Junoobi Punjab Mahaaz (South Punjab Front) to gain as much political mileage as was possible from Seraiki nationalists.

A more obvious political reading is that the PTI needed to consolidate its gains because two of the party’s top leaders, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Jahangir Tareen, hail from southern Punjab. That might well be the case. But equally, the mandate that southern Punjab has handed to the PTI is based on an idea — rebuilding the Seraiki belt.

Perhaps this is the face of the abstract ‘hope’ that the PTI refers to. The 2017 census notes a dramatic rise in southern Punjab’s population. Meanwhile, resources, infrastructure and jobs have struggled to cope with demographic pressures. Between Census 1998 and Census 2017, the population in Punjab increased by 33.08 percent. In seven of the 11 southern Punjab districts, population rose by more than the provincial average. Four of the top five districts across the country with the highest rise in population come from southern Punjab: Rajanpur (44.71), Dera Ghazi Khan (42.79), Muzzafargarh (39.01) and Layyah (38.55). The megacity of Lahore is the fifth member of this club; its population rose by 43.02 percent.

A separate province, with an absolute majority, will allow the PTI an opportunity to rebuild the region from scratch. And if the PTI can make good on its pre-electoral promise of carving a new province, and ensure adequate delivery of services, then it would be setting the foundations of a legacy.


Before the sixth population and housing census of 2017, significant administrative changes had already taken place in Balochistan — these would ultimately define the fate of elections in Balochistan.

On August 1, 2017, the district of Shaheed Sikanderkabad came into existence. Headquartered in Surab, the district was carved out of Kalat District. Announcements to upgrade the erstwhile Surab tehsil were made in 2016 by Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri. This move effectively collected Baloch populations (of the region) into a consolidated whole. Another district announced by Zehri was Dukki. This, too, was a tehsil and it also came into being on August 1, 2017.

But there were other territorial changes to district boundaries which in official parlance can be described as “territorial rationalisation”. For instance, part of Mastung was added to Quetta. And similarly, part of Qilla Abdullah — itself a district carved out of Pishin — was handed back to Pishin. Both districts have a majority Pakhtun population. Later on, a new National Assembly constituency would be born: NA-262. This was carved out of what was known as NA-261 (Pishin-cum-Ziarat). As Pishin got its separate National Assembly constituency, it also got its separate provincial seats.

Meanwhile, on March 30, 2018, news filtered through that dissidents of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) had joined forces and formed the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP). Arguably the most significant political development anywhere in the country in the run-up to the elections, particularly in cutting the PML-N to size, its impact can now be measured in terms of votes: 319,348 for the National Assembly and 446,913 for the Balochistan Assembly. This translates into five National Assembly seats and 22 at the provincial level.

But a more careful reading of electoral maps suggests that the BAP was more than a party propped against Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N.

In fact, BAP’s influence in terms of electoral numbers spread into territories widely considered to be ideologically dominated by Baloch nationalism. It struggled to penetrate into the Pakhtun belt in northern Balochistan, with constituencies previously won by Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) now going to the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA). But in Balochistan’s southern belt, the BAP wiped off both the PML-N and the National Party (NP) of Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo. The Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) had also managed to win seats back in 2013 but they, too, were swept aside by the BAP wave.

The only resistance to the BAP in southern Balochistan came from Nawab Akhtar Mengal’s Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M). In total, the party bagged 238,8171 votes for the National Assembly and 127,823 for the Balochistan Assembly. Crucially, the party managed to retain its vote bank in the Makran belt; Mengal’s speech in the inaugural National Assembly session about recovering missing Baloch citizens explains why he is still the peoples’ choice from the Makran belt. The last time round, provincial election results had thrown up a number of independent candidates in central and western Balochistan. These constituencies have also now gone with the BNP-M.

And yet, while the combined opposition in Balochistan numbers 22 members, the number of seats won by the BAP alone is 20. Part of this can be explained by the carving of new districts and constituencies — winning from Awaran and Panjgur underscores this phenomenon. But crucially, BAP emerged victorious in Balochistan’s rural areas and tribal belts, most of which have scattered populations. It couldn’t capture Quetta, for example, where the Hazara Democratic Party and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party held more sway.


If the 2013 election marked the routing of the Awami National Party (ANP) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 2018 spelt the end of whatever little influence the PML-N exerted in the province. Both these parties have been replaced by the PTI and to a certain extent, candidates who found it more feasible to contest as independents rather than a party platform.

But unlike common perception, that the PTI has completely swept Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in actuality, the PTI has made gains in the central belt of the province. In the last two elections, there was some party variation in this region. In 2008, for example, the ANP, the PPP and independents emerged victorious from here.

In 2013, the PML-N swallowed a chunk of independent candidates and some of the PPP’s vote bank. The same year marked the arrival of the PTI as an electoral force in the province. The provincial government was formed with the PTI having bagged 33 seats, the same number that was bagged by the ANP in 2008.

This year, however, this number almost doubled, to 65 seats in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly.

But there is more to it than meets the eye.

The total number of seats for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly remained 99. But delimitations made certain changes that would carve new constituencies in some areas and bifurcate others. Take, for example, the constituency currently named PK-01. In 2013, this was actually PK-89 and PK-90. PK-89 was one of two seats in the province that was won by the PPP in 2013. Similarly, PK-90 was the only seat that the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf could bag in the province. This time, with the two constituencies merged, the victors turned out to be the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA).

But while these constituencies were merged, new constituencies were carved to make up the numbers.

The primary beneficiary of this redrawing of constituencies was Peshawar, which got another three provincial assembly seats. Lower Dir, too, got another seat. The party to exploit these new boundaries in terms of votes was the PTI.

Meanwhile, some districts also lost their seats. These include Abbottabad, Haripur, Swabi, Charsadda and Chitral. Most of these regions voted either PML-N or ANP.

Another interesting matrix is population growth. The average population growth in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, according to the 2017 census, is 41.87 percent. Between 1998 and 2017, the percentage increase in population in Abbottabad, Haripur, Swabi, Charsadda and Chitral hovered between 28 percent and 37 percent. Meanwhile, both Peshawar and Lower Dir reported more than 50 percent increase in population over this time. These were the only two places to get more provincial seats; PTI bagged 12 out of 13 provincial seats from Peshawar and four out of five seats from Lower Dir.


Perhaps the lasting image from Sindh in this election season was Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari addressing a charged crowd on a megaphone from her car. Although the photograph itself was reminiscent of Benazir Bhutto, it is Aseefa’s father, Asif Ali Zardari, around whom politics and business both revolve in the province. And if the 2018 elections were meant to challenge this hegemony, the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) failed miserably in putting up a stiff fight.

In 2008, even as the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) rode the sympathy wave in the wake of Benazir’s assassination, it did not manage to conquer the entire province as regions in upper and southern Sindh still went with the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q). But by 2013, Zardari had effectively pushed out the PML-Q from electoral politics in Sindh. Erstwhile PML-Q districts were won by independents. The only consistent challenge to the PPP came from the Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F), which bagged seven seats in 2008 as well as in 2013.

But while Sindhi politics had traditionally relied on using antagonism against the Altaf Hussain-led Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) as a key point of mobilisation, the Karachi Operation forced Sindhi politicians to find newer ways to preach their politics.

And so, the GDA came to the fore. While the guns were once turned towards the MQM, they were now aiming for Zardari. Narratives were spun around corruption, nepotism, incompetence and the like to prove that Zardari is, in fact, a menace to Sindhi politics since he had repeatedly compromised on Sindhi interests.

In fact, this aversion to Zardari seems to be more widespread. In the Sindh Assembly that later took oath, Dua Bhutto, an MPA nominated on a reserved seat for women, chided Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari for not being a ‘real’ Bhutto and not having the courage to own the Zardari name. She claimed that the ‘real’ Bhuttos were now back in the assembly.

And yet, the 2018 election saw the PPP do better than the last two elections: 73 seats this year as compared to 69 in 2013 and 71 in 2008.

It is arguably also because of the Karachi Operation that the PTI emerged as the second-largest party in Sindh. The MQM-Pakistan was reduced to a mere six seats while the PTI bagged 23 seats. Coupled with their allies in the GDA, the expectation was that this front could pose a challenge to the PPP.

But in essence, the PTI’s gains in Sindh were ultimately about propping its numbers in the National Assembly. At the provincial level, it will emerge as the main opposition party for the first time.

Among the voting patterns historically seen in Karachi are voter preferences being divided in terms of choosing a national party for the National Assembly and the MQM at the provincial level. This time round, Karachi has allegedly voted either for Imran Khan or Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari — both leaders of national parties rather than provincial ones.

The writer is a member of staff.

He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 2nd, 2018